Turkey’s Erdogan meets Azerbaijan’s Aliyev as Armenians flee Nagorno-Karabakh

Ankara is backing the oil-rich Turkic nation’s current drive to seize all of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev in Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani exclave bordering Turkey, as thousands of ethnic Armenians continued to flee Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia proper in the wake of a fresh Azerbaijani assault on the majority Armenian enclave that has been the scene of bloody conflicts since the early 1990s.

In a 44-day-long war in 2020, Turkey’s military support proved key in helping Azerbaijan wrest back all of its territories occupied by Armenia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it is backing the oil-rich Turkic nation’s current drive to seize all of Nagorno-Karabakh. The mountainous region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but its population is 95% Armenian.

On Sept. 20, the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, the Armenian name for the enclave, effectively capitulated after Azerbaijan launched a wave of attacks targeting what it called separatist “terrorists” — a reference to the local Armenian force defending some 120,000 ethnic Armenians who have inhabited the area for millennia.

Erdogan said it was “a matter of pride” that Azerbaijan’s latest “victory” was “successfully completed in a short period of time, with utmost sensitivity to the rights of civilians.” Even as he uttered those words, fresh allegations of abuses continued to flow from Armenian sources on the ground, with searing images shared online of women and children said to be wounded by Azerbaijani shelling.

Azerbaijan said it launched the operation to uphold a 2020 trilateral peace agreement with Russia and Armenia. Russian peacekeepers deployed in keeping with the agreement put up little resistance, prompting Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to accuse the Kremlin of failing to honor its commitments. Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led bloc consisting of five other post-Soviet states under which members rise to the defense of others when under attack from outside forces.

Harrowing scenes in Artsakh as civilians flee for their lives. For Armenia and Armenians, it’s a surreal moment that echoes in space and time #ArmenianGenocide2023 #Armenia #Artsakh pic.twitter.com/RxAkvdEdgA
— Tro (@OfficialTro) September 20, 2023

The timing of Erdogan’s visit to Nakhichevan, where the two leaders took part in a groundbreaking ceremony of a military logistics center and a natural gas pipeline running from Nakhichevan to Turkey’s Igdir province, was provocative, observers say. This is because of Baku’s demands that Armenia allow the establishment of the Zangezour transport corridor connecting Nakhichevan to the Azerbaijani mainland and providing unfettered access; in other words, there would be no border controls at either end. Armenia has rejected those terms, saying this would amount to an effective occupation of Armenian territory that would separate the country from its borders with Iran, its sole ally in the region. (The plan was not mentioned during the joint news conference.)

Iran has repeatedly declared any such effort a red line and has carried out military exercises along the border. Israel, alongside Turkey, provided weapons and military advisers to Azerbaijan in the 2020 war, and Iran believes that the Jewish state is using Azerbaijan as a staging post to destabilize the Islamic Republic.

Iran sees the retaking of Karabakh by Azerbaijan as the most serious step in the establishment of the Zangezour corridor, said Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “That corridor as perceived in Iran is going to deprive Iran of a very serious geopolitical advantage, which is direct land access to Armenia and also the leverage it had over Azerbaijan over its access to Nakhichevan,” Azizi told Al-Monitor. “In that sense, there is a lot at stake.”

Lonely at the top

USAID director Samantha Powers, a passionate advocate of recognition of the 1915 genocide of more than a million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks, arrived in Yerevan today together with Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Yuri Kim, as first reported by Reuters.

The visit follows a 10-day joint military exercise between the United States and Armenia. Since Pashinyan’s rise to power in a popular revolution in 2018 against successive authoritarian and massively corrupt regimes, Armenia has moved closer to Washington and refuses to endorse Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, Pashinyan is seeking normalization with Turkey in the hopes this would fend off further Azerbaijani aggression, but so far to little effect. More than a year and a half since normalization talks started, the land border between Turkey and Armenia remains sealed and diplomatic ties have yet to be established as Ankara presses Pashinyan for ever more concessions to Azerbaijan, as apparently is the Kremlin.

Russia’s laissez-faire attitude is linked to two primary factors, according to Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. One is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visceral hostility to color revolutions; the other is Putin’s current dependence on Azerbaijan, through which Russia allegedly sells its oil to Europe packaged as Azerbaijani.

Ramani, who closely monitors Kremlin-manipulated Telegram channels, noted that they were clearly seeking to exaggerate the size of ongoing protests against Pashinyan in the hope that this would build momentum to overthrow him. “They are also trying to stoke the feeling that Nikol Pashinyan is trying to sell out Armenian sovereignty,” Ramani told Al-Monitor.

But his Western friends will ultimately do little to help him for lack of will rather than means.

Despite having peace observers along the cease-fire lines, the European Union has been cautious because of its enhanced need for Azeri oil stemming from sanctions on Russian energy, condemning Baku for the military operation but taking no direct action against it.

Similarly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed US “support for Armenia’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity” and expressed “the United States’ deep concern for the ethnic population in Nagorno-Karabakh,” according to a readout of his call with Pashinyan Saturday.

Blinken additionally called for Azerbaijan to “protect civilians and uphold its obligation to respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh and to ensure its forces comply with international humanitarian law.” But he did not condemn Azerbaijani aggression either, likely because of the role the country plays in helping to contain Iran.

Adding to this grim picture are the troubles faced by Armenia’s stoutest ally in the United States Congress, Sen. Robert Menendez. The New Jersey Democrat was forced to step down as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after being indicted by federal prosecutors in an alleged bribery scheme involving his wife, Nadine, who is an ethnic Armenian, and three businessmen to benefit the Egyptian government. Many of his home constituents are ethnic Armenians.

Echoing the agony felt by many in the face of Armenia’s helplessness during the past week’s events, Simon Maghakyan, an Armenian doctoral student in the United States who has been documenting the erasure of Armenian cultural monuments in Azerbaijan, said, “Fuck Menendez and his performative bullshit. Fuck Samantha Power and her crocodile tears.”

“The US knew all about this from the get-go. They think they will kick Russia out of the region with a second Armenian Genocide. It didn’t work the first time. It won’t work now,” Maghakyan told Al-Monitor.

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